Back on Latin America's menu: purple seaweed, blue eggs, and amaranth
As traditional foods like quinoa gain popularity world-wide, many in Latin America are seeking to get their own residents to delve into plates that were the superfoods of their ancestors.
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There is some nationalism behind promoting local specialties, like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's call for his people to consume more arepas, sandwiches made with a traditional corn meal patty rather than wheat bread. And Bolivian Foreign Minister David Chuquehuenca joked in July that recent buzz over the “end” of the Maya calendar this year could signify an end to capitalism and Coca-Cola and the rebirth of mocochinchi, a traditional beverage from dried peaches boiled with cinnamon.Skip to next paragraph
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But in many cases refocusing on traditional grains and products makes agricultural sense. Amaranth, like the three surviving varieties of quinoa, and potatoes in colors from red to blue, have been harvested for centuries because they simply grow better than many commodity crops in the particular climates of Latin America, from the chilly highlands of Mexico to the high, dry plains of Bolivia and the temperate rainforest of Chile.
On the island of Chiloe, off Chile's coast at the north end of Patagonia, families used to be referred to not by last name but by the variety of potato they planted, says Francisco Fantini, who edited the award-winning cookbook series "Gastronomia Patagonia."
But they, like farmers throughout Latin America, gave up on selling native crops to the market, especially as government programs promoted major global commodity crops above local foods, despite having to adapt them to non-native climates. For example, agricultural ministries in Chile and Peru monitor the price of products such as rice, wheat, and apples to ensure that food remains affordable, but don't bother monitoring quinoa prices.
Yet governments are starting to put priorities on traditional foods. In southern Chile, a local office of the agriculture ministry is working with Mapuche farmers to revive the breeding line of the Mapuche hen, a chicken famous for producing pale blue eggs.
The FAO is working with the governments of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador to improve the quality of seeds used to plant native quinoa, potato, corn, and dry beans.
The broader acceptance of formerly exotic foods, such as quinoa, leaves the field open for even more unusual specialties. Toasted giant ants are sold as a packaged snack food in the Santander region of Colombia, while a hot sauce made with Amazonian ants has become a sought-after delicacy in Venezuela.
Such delicacies are gaining popularity not just among Latin Americans but visitors, who used to find it easier to find European cuisine than ant eggs or fried grasshoppers, two specialities of Mexico. Now chefs are recognizing a new potential market, and that is impacting the entire production chain. Mr. Quiñeman, the Mapuche chef, says consumers are increasingly demanding both healthy food – and novelty.
"They want to try something typical of the place,” he says.